Sweat and Indecent serve as forceful reminders that art matters — as if proof was needed.
By Iris Fanger
A trip to New York City in late April included three recently-opened theater productions and an evening at New York City Ballet. Given too many choices for too few days in town — not to mention personal favorites to attend — there were many good more shows I wished I had seen.
Indecent at the Cort Theatre, 48th Street, New York.
Paula Vogel’s Indecent is a play within a play (wrapped in memory) that delivers an exquisite evening in the theater. Directed by Rebecca Taichman and recently nominated in the Best Play category for both the Lucille Lortel and the Tony Awards, the production marks the long-delayed arrival of Vogel’s work on Broadway after decades of an impressive playwriting career off-Broadway and in regional theaters. (Vogel also taught playwriting for 30 years at Brown and Yale Universities). Indecent had a sold-out run a year ago off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre before this month’s opening at the Cort Theatre on 48th Street.
The production is based on a true incident. In 1922, Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s 1907 drama The God of Vengeance, was translated into English and produced in New York at Provincetown Playhouse. After the play moved onto Broadway in 1923, the cast and producer were indicted on the charge that they were involved with “obscene, indecent, immoral and impure material.” The actors were taken to jail, but released on bail the next morning, in time to perform in the matinee. When the case went to trial two months later there was a guilty verdict — which was later overturned on appeal.
The God of Vengeance follows the conflicts within a Jewish family: father and mother live over the brothel they run in their basement; they are trying to control their virginal daughter, who is in love with one of the prostitutes. Jewish theatergoers were troubled by the portrayal of Jews as sinners; some accused Asch of encouraging anti-Semitism, while others celebrated the work. Asch defended his motives, arguing that he was telling the truth — not all Jews are paragons of virtue. The play included a scene of the two young women kissing, the first time lesbian attraction was dramatized so directly on an American stage. New Yorker audiences were used to seeing brothel scenes in plays, but many were shocked at seeing lesbian love.
As a student at Cornell during the 1970s, Vogel came across the play when she was making the decision to come out. Two decades later, young director Rebecca Taichman found an out-of-print copy in the stacks of Yale University’s library. “Somehow…we find each other,” Vogel wrote in a program note, and the two begin their collaboration on Indecent.
Their work became an intertwining of scenes from Asch’s play with an imaginative take on the off-stage relationships among the actors. The production is aided enormously by David Dorfman’s choreography, which not only evokes the flavor of Yiddish theater, but knits the scenes together into a flowing tapestry of 20th century Jewish history. A score for klezmer instruments, composed and performed by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, with musician Matt Darriau, contributes movingly to our sense of the era.
Seven actors are seated in chairs across the rear of the stage when the audience enters, as if the ensemble had been waiting a long time for witnesses to arrive. Christopher Akerlind lights them in an other-worldly glow. The performers transform from their off-stage characters to become actors in a production of Asch’s play; this fluid treatment of time and space encompasses the emotional fall-out from the staging, roiled by events from the outside world. Indecent’s acting is highlighted by Tom Nelis, as the distinguished actor of the Yiddish theater Richard Schildkraut, and Katrina Lenk, who gives an affecting performance as the experienced prostitute. Time is a character as well: the years before and after World War I are marked by Tal Yarden’s projections, which scroll the dates as they go by, alternating with the ironic reminder “A blink of time.”
Asch is also present in the play, growing from idealistic youth to wary maturity, the latter informed by a return to Europe in the 1920s when he witnessed the fate of his fellow Jews in the Russian pogroms.
Indecent is a rare theatrical experience: traumatic historical reality intermingles with a poetic evocation of the past.
Sweat at Studio 54, 54th Street, New York
Unlike Paula Vogel’s nostalgic play, Lynn Nottage’s Sweat is as current as the headlines on CNN, though the years the script covers cycle from 2008 back to 2000, bookending the presidency of George W. Bush. Set in Reading, Pennsylvania, the plot revolves around the fate of a group of factory workers who lose their long-time jobs in a steel parts mill after the management dismantles the manufacturing machines — in secret — over a weekend and sends them off to Mexico. Management’s aim is to break the power of the union: winning draconic concessions on salaries and benefits from the workers along the way. The play’s diagnosis of the rise of Trump — that his victory was made possible by workers driven by legitimate grievances over their endangered livelihoods, their trust in government broken — is crystal clear.
The deus-ex-machina of Sweat is Stan (James Colby), a one-time worker in the factory who, after being severely injured after 28 years on a machine, now runs the local bar. He deals with the rising tempers of the workers, soothing conflicts generated by employment blues. Among the regulars at the bar: Tracey (Johanna Day), Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), and Jessie (Alison Wright), who have been best friends for nearly 25 years, working side by side on the line. Each has his or her home-life problems, which escalate as relationships at the factory become more troubled. Cynthia, an African-American, has been promoted into management, causing a split between her and her friends and propelling suggestions of racism. Her husband, Brucie — laid off from a job at a different factory that has locked-out its regular employees — has lost all hope and become a drug addict.
Tracey’s son, Jason, and Cynthia’s son, Chris, are employed at the factory in Reading as well. They have been best buddies, but each has a radically different vision of the future. Meanwhile, Oscar, the American-born son of Columbian immigrants, is looking for a better job; he is not content to remain Stan’s assistant at the bar. When Oscar agrees to work as a scab at the factory, the anger of the displaced workers escalates with a mix of horrible and ironic consequences.
Director Kate Whoriskey has assembled a splendid cast of actors, led by Day as the terminally-inflamed Tracey and Wilson as the more pragmatic Cynthia (both have been nominated in the 2017 Tony Awards Best Actor category). Wright is no less memorable as the alcoholic Jessie, who somehow manages to pull herself together for the factory’s starting bell each morning. Carlo Alban, as the outsider Hispanic Oscar, is a quiet yet agitated presence in each scene at the bar.
Lynn Nottage’s play won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize. (She also garnered the 2009 Pulitzer for Ruined, not to mention a MacArthur “genius” award, among many others). The dramatist is a researcher, we are told, and for this play she drew on conversations with real life workers, talks that inspired the creation of her characters. The playwright is admirably sensitive to working class rationalizations and frustrations. In addition to her dramatic flair, Nottage should be congratulated for reminding us that theater can be more effective than newsprint and television commentary when it comes to addressing contemporary political conflicts. Indecent and Sweat, both nominees in Best Play for the 2017 Tony Awards category, serve as forceful reminders that art matters — as if proof was needed.
Bandstand at Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York
Bandstand stood out out among the slew of recent Broadway musicals because it is an original work, rather than a revival or a film-to-stage adaptation. However, despite the production’s earnestness and its dark/light subject matter, there’s not all that much to celebrate, in part because the scores for other shows about World War II — South Pacific and The Sound of Music among them — reverberate so strongly in our heads. Composer Richard Oberacker, who collaborated on the book and lyrics with Rob Taylor, did not have enough musical moxie to equal the wonderful pop songs of the post-World War II period – think the Andrews Sisters and the sounds of the Big Bands. Nor does the story of Bandstand sufficiently pluck the heart-strings: the idea is to explore the difficulties of soldiers recovering from the traumas of the battlefield, returning to an economy that did not welcome them home.
Given his success as choreographer for Hamilton, it was surprising that director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler did little more than re-create the spirit of the period’s dances, from the virtuoso jitterbug to the rhumba and samba. His choreography for Bandstand serves as no more than wallpaper behind the soldiers — turned musicians — who drive the plot. Movement gets precious little stage time of its own. And this is puzzling. Yes, this approach proved fruitful in Hamilton, providing an effective contrast with the historical drama. But here there isn’t enough dancing here to evoke the flavor of the time. I grew up in Chicago during the period of the Harvest Moon Festival, which featured virtuoso amateurs performing acrobatic feats in competition for the spotlight, and I can testify that Blankenbuehler missed a fabulous opportunity. However, he effectively used the notion of dancers as ghost-warriors rising from the dead (familiar from the movable frieze of dancers in Paul Taylor’s now-classic work Company B.)
Bandstand opens in 1945 when Donny Novitsky, somewhat shell-shocked after four years on the World War II battlefields, comes home to find his piano-playing jobs taken by younger musicians who had not served. He is demoralized, but springs back to life to enter a contest that promises to give the winning band the opportunity to appear on a radio show. Donny (Corey Cotts, in an appealing performance as a pianist and adorable boy-next-door) recruits a group of musicians who served in the war (actor-singers who can also play instruments) for the band, and finds a singer in Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes), the young widow of his best friend and fallen comrade in the war. Romance and success with the band follow, but not until some obstacles are overcome.
Osnes is a veteran Broadway charmer, a bearer of both dance and singing talent. She belts out the songs and looks terrific in the period frocks designed by Paloma Young. What’s more, she and Cotts have chemistry between them to burn. Still, one must wonder if the script’s despair — rooted in angst over losing a husband — resolved by finding mate so quickly, is in the best interests of this musical’s subject matter. However, the remainder of the cast is fine, especially the soldiers turned members of the band. It was a pleasure to see Boston’s own Mary Callahan in multiple roles, including the Kate Smith-look alike character. Too bad that most of the characters, other than Donny and Julia, are underwritten. Bandstand is a disappointment; it adds little to either the Great American Songbook or our the remembrance of times past.
Iris Fanger is a theater and dance critic based in Boston. She has written reviews and feature articles for the Boston Herald, Boston Phoenix, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, and Patriot Ledger as well as for Dance Magazine and Dancing Times (London).
Former director of the Harvard Summer Dance Center, 1977-1995, she has taught at Lesley Graduate School and Tufts University, as well as Harvard and M.I.T. She received the 2005 Dance Champion Award from the Boston Dance Alliance and in 2008, the Outstanding Career Achievement Award from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts. She lectures widely on dance and theater history.